Monday 30 August 2021

A few more thoughts as we say goodbye to August

I started August with a few seemingly random thoughts about the month. Now, as we prepare to say goodbye to the eighth month of 2021, here are a few more thoughts, and some concerns, but this time they are a lot less disjointed, and there is a common thread running thought them.

This Bank Holiday Weekend sees the resumption of the twice yearly, beer festivals at the Halfway House, Brenchley. For obvious reasons, no festivals were held during 2020, and whilst I believe a rather slimmed-down event did take place this late May Bank Holiday, this weekend’s event is a return to the full-on festivals the HWH is renowned for.

Did I go? No. Was I tempted? Definitely yes, as even though I’ve rather fallen out of love with such events, the festival would have provided the chance to meet up and socialise with friends and acquaintances, many of whom I haven’t seen for 18 months or so.What’s more, the local CAMRA Branch billed the even as their first official, post-lockdown get-together, and whilst I’m no longer a Campaign member, I do like to keep abreast of what’s going on, especially on a local basis.

My reasons for missing out on the
chance of a much needed catch-up, relate to our impending late summer holiday. In 12 days’ time, Mrs PBT’s and I are embarking on a four night cruise on the Cunard Queen Elizabeth. Sailing from Southampton, the cruise will not be leaving UK territorial waters, but after rounding Land’s End, will sail up the Irish Sea to Liverpool. The vessel will then dock, allowing passengers time for a brief look around the city, before sailing back to Southampton.

The cost of the cruise was met from credit accrued from last year’s
cancelled voyage to Hamburg, and it is a break that both of us are very much looking forward to. Given the adverse effect that Covid-19 had on the cruise industry, at the start of the pandemic, the operator is taking no chances, so as well as requiring masks to be worn, in all indoor communal areas, passengers are required to take a lateral-flow test, for Coronavirus, prior to boarding.

And there lies the rub, because although we will receive a full refund, if either of us are refused boarding, due to a positive test, it would still put the mockers on things – and that’s putting it bluntly. It’s a risk we don’t want to take, and whilst I wouldn’t normally, be quite so cautious, the last thing I want is the cancellation of a long anticipated, and much needed holiday.

Cunard advise passengers to avoid potential Covid hot spots, such as large indoor gatherings, for two weeks prior to sailing, just for their own peace of mind, so because of this, you can perhaps understand my reluctance to attend the HWH beer festival. Yes, I know it’s an outdoor event, and the chances of me becoming infected are low, even though nationally infections rates remain high, but at the moment I intend to play safe, so that we can climb that gangplank in confidence, next month.

The real concern, and one that has been swept under the carpet, is infection rates for Covid-19, remain stubbornly high. They have been running at around 30,000 new cases per day for several weeks now; a level ought to be ringing alarm bells. Instead, Covid-19 seems no longer newsworthy, eclipsed first by the Olympics, and now by the debacle surrounding Afghanistan.

Should we be experiencing these sorts of levels, given the undoubted success of the vaccination programme? Infection rates, per 100,000 of population, are far higher than this time last year, which if you think back was a period when many people, including many in the government, thought the worst of the pandemic was behind us.

No one doubts the effectiveness of getting most of us “double-jabbed,” but if the recent experience of Israel is anything to go by, we should be proceeding far more cautiously.  Was it sensible to drop all restrictions, for the sake of a grandiose political gesture? (Johnson’s so-called, and much-vaunted “Freedom Day.”). Would it not have made sense to have least kept certain relatively low-level control measures in place?

I’m talking here about continuing to wear masks in crowded indoor situations, such as supermarkets or whilst using public transport, along with maintaining sensible social distancing and adequate ventilation. I am not talking about re-imposing restrictions on sectors such as hospitality and travel, and I am definitely not advocating another lock-down!

Israel is currently having to reintroduce such measures, even with a vaccine take-up that rivals our own, so have we, like the Israelis, been lulled into a false sense of security by the vaccine?

I really dislike wearing a mask, but without sounding like Mr & Mrs Goody Two-shoes, both Mrs PBT’s and I have continued doing so whilst in supermarkets, as well as on buses and trains. Several work colleagues are doing the same, as is our son Matthew. He works in retail, and whilst mask wearing is no longer mandatory in his store, he feels more secure in doing so, especially as he is still waiting for his second jab.

Two other people I know have adopted the same pre-holiday cautionary approach as us. They are about to fly off on well-earned breaks, and don’t want to be prevented from doing so by showing positive, on a pre-flight lateral-flow Covid test.

South Manchester based blogger Phil, adopts a far more cautionary approach in the latest post on his very readable, and well-presented, Oh Good Ale blog. Titled, Is it safe? Phil doesn’t think so and remains singularly unimpressed with the irreversible nature of the government’s “no going back” approach.

He goes into far more detail on the current situation than I have and makes the good point that what happened with the Alpha (Kent) variant, has happened all over again with the Delta one. He adds that had we nothing more to worry about than the original Wuhan version of Corona, the country would probably be Covid-free by now.

I’m going to leave the matter there for the time being, as unlike Phil I am not going to fret unduly over what may or may not happen. I would say though, that a little more thought and a lot more common sense would go along way to enure that we come out of this situation in a good place, rather than letting the whole cycle repeat itself.

Consequently I intend to continue with a sensible, cautionary and pragmatic approach, even if this does mean not re-engaging with activities and events quite as much as I would otherwise wish – at least not until I have next month’s cruise under my belt.


Friday 27 August 2021

End of the road??

Earlier in August, in a post about the Rock at Chiddingstone Hoath, I wrote about an impending local road closure which would preclude me making any lunchtime visits to the pub, for a period of up to 10 weeks.

Just over two weeks ago the closure came into effect, and since that time Chiddingstone Causeway, the village where I work, has been eerily quiet. Traffic on the normally busy B2027, has been reduced to a trickle, as motorists contend with a tortuous and narrow diversion route, and whilst some residents might welcome the peace and quiet, the loss of passing trade has been having a devastating effect on local businesses.

The Causeway Stores, which is the village shop and post office, has certainly seemed significantly less busy, and the same applies to the Little Brown Jug pub, just up the road. I walk past both establishments most lunchtimes, and the builders vans usually parked outside the shop, are conspicuous by their absence, as the tradesmen are forced to go elsewhere for their “made to order” sandwiches and rolls.

The pub car park, which is normally full to overflowing, has plenty of empty spaces, and the garden too seems empty and devoid of customers. I often call in at the Causeway Stores to pick up the milk for work, and where I would once have to queue in order to get served, I can now walk straight in.

Speaking to the local press, Jodie Hodge who owns the shop said her takings were down £3,000 a week and Gareth Nixon, the manager of the Little Brown Jug, said his custom was down by 50%.

Meanwhile residents of the small community of Bough Beech, a few miles further along the road, in the direction of Edenbridge, have been effectively cut off with no access to the shop, or the rail station, both at Chiddingstone Causeway, and with no bus service which has been cancelled due to the lengthy diversion.

Although the section of road that has been closed covers only a few hundred yards, the official diversion route, using similar B-class roads, is 35-miles long and takes over an hour to complete. Not surprisingly, locals have found a quicker route using narrow back roads, but anyone who has driven along these lanes will tell you they are totally unsuited for the increased volume of traffic. Several work colleagues have already experienced near misses, and the situation is likely to continue until the road reopens.

Yesterday, news broke that the water company responsible, has bowed to pressure and has announced it will lift the closure of the B2027 between Chiddingstone Causeway and Bough Beech, by the end of the week. The Sutton and East Surrey Water Company, are one of the UK's smaller water companies, covering parts of Surrey, Kent and south London. This ranges from Morden and South Croydon in the north to Gatwick Airport in the south and from Cobham, Leatherhead and Dorking in the west to Edenbridge in the east. 

SES, as they like to be known, supplies 160 million litres of clean water every day to over 735,000 people, with groundwater supplies providing the bulk of this water, plus around 15 per cent being extracted from the company’s reservoir at Bough Beech near Edenbridge.

In a statement yesterday, a spokesman for SES said, "We are a local company with a long history in the Bough Beech area and we always strive to be responsive and do what is right in providing our essential public service."

"We have not under-estimated the concern from local people and businesses about the closure of the B2027 in Chiddingstone. Over the last few days, we have been at the site and spent many hours investigating alternative ways to still allow this essential work to continue, but to do so in a way that reduces the impact on the community.”

"We have made good progress so far, having laid more than 200 metres of new pipes, but unfortunately it is not possible at the moment, due to the nature of the work needed in the road, to open one lane with traffic lights, which we recognise would be much less disruptive."

Make what you will of that, as whilst no one doubts that the water main needs replacing, the concerns of local residents and businesses seem to have been ignored, despite what SES claim in their statement.

The fact they have agreed to reopen the road, albeit on a temporary basis, has been down to a petition organised by a woman from Tonbridge, after she found herself unable to reach her mother who lives in Bough Beech, plus pressure from Sevenoaks District Council leader, Peter Fleming, and Tom Tugendhat, the MP for Tonbridge and Malling.

Concern remains though, that the road closure will be reinstated, unless SES can find a way to allow one lane to remain open, under the control of traffic lights. With the closure initially scheduled to last until October, the long-term picture is not looking good for those living and working locally.

Last week I took a wander down to where the work was taking place, to see what was going on, and in the usual grand tradition of the great British workman, not a lot was taking place. The photos speak for themselves, and my observations were also supported by staff from the Causeway Stores who, understandably remain concerned for the future of their business.

The final words come from Councillor Peter Fleming, who said, “As a council we do all we can to support businesses and we really feel for business owners in Chiddingstone Causeway who have been affected by these road closures."

"We have also been working with Kent Highways to see if in future they can influence utility companies’ ways of working with regards to road closures and diversions.”

The answer surely lies in that last sentence, as until faceless utility companies realise their responsibilities to the local community, includes minimising disruption to people and businesses within those communities, we are unfortunately likely to see more of this high-handed behaviour.


Wednesday 25 August 2021

FUGSCLUB redemption

I called into Fuggles, Tonbridge on Sunday, in order to redeem my £15 FUGSCLUB loyalty voucher. My visit wasn’t quite as intended, as young master Matthew had other plans for the afternoon, and they were plans that didn’t involve his dear old dad!

The pair of us had originally intended to use the voucher for a sampling of some of Fuggle's lagers – brews such as Utopian British Lager, Lost & Grounded Keller Pils, along with whatever foreign “import” that might be on sale, but with time running out, Matthew otherwise engaged, and the voucher expiring at the end of August, I opted for Plan B, instead.            

Plan B was to spend the voucher mainly on takeaway bottles, and grab a cheeky pint in the process – only because it would be rude not to, so shortly before 4pm, I pitched up at Fuggles to see what options were available on the take out front.

The pub-café was reasonably full, although there were still several free tables, but before choosing one, I inquired at the bar about spending my voucher and then choosing a few suitable bottles to take home with me.

My choice was a conservative one, and having noticed a couple of bottles of Schlenkerla Märzen lurking in the fridge, I immediately laid claim to them. Aecht Schlenkerla is by far the smokiest of Bamberg’s famous Rauchbiers, and seems quite hard to come by at the moment, so that choice was a no-brainer.

I also opted for another Bavarian beer, this time in the form of Tegernseer Hell, a pale but very satisfying beer brewed at Brauhaus Tegernsee, on the shores of the large Alpine Tegernsee Lake.  A day trip out to Tegernsee, on the privately operated BOB train, has been a regular feature of summer visits to Munich, for both Matthew and I.

The chance to enjoy a few mugs of this locally produced beer in the atmospheric beerhall, along with a plate of hearty Bavarian food, is not one to be missed, so with these memories in mind a bottle of Tegernseer Hell will go down very well.

My third choice was a bottle of Westmalle Tripel; another beer that is hard to get hold of. Waitrose stock the much darker Dubbel, but Westmalle Tripel regularly features in lists of the world’s top beers.

Those four bottles came to a little under £15, so with my initial plan of a crafty pint, still very much in mind, and an extra four quid to pay, I looked at the board to decide what to order. Should I go for keg and try the Utopian British Lager, or should I remain loyal to cask?

After four and a half decades of loyalty to the latter, it seemed hard to abandon it now, even though the fact I am no longer a CAMRA member means no longer being bound to the strictures of the mother church, as Ed Wray would put it.

Cask it was then, in the form of Mosaic – a single hop beer from Downlands Brewery.  I am not normally a fan of single hop beers, as they can be somewhat one-dimensional, but being aware that Mosaic is a hop variety with some interesting flavours, I thought I’d give it a try. The beer was perfectly drinkable, and in excellent condition, but if I’m brutally honest, this particular brew didn’t really do it for me.

I left it at just the one beer, as I knew that Mrs PBT’s was putting together a meal of lamb kebabs with rice, pittas and salad, at home. I certainly didn’t want to be late, and neither did I want more than one beer, due to the risk of falling asleep in the armchair afterwards - a big, no, no as far as the lady of the house is concerned,

I sat there finishing my beer, taking in the comings and goings, along with the ambience of a summer Sunday afternoon. What I observed reinforced my feelings that Fuggles is a very pleasant place for a paced and moderate, afternoon’s drinking. It is a definite asset to the town, and it’s good to see the place up and trading again after the turmoil of the last 18 months. 

I was also pleased to have made good use of my loyalty voucher, which in effect was reward for me sticking with Fuggles, throughout the tumultuous months of late winter and early spring, when the only way they were able to trade was by means of home deliveries and schemes such as FUGSCLUB.

Friday 20 August 2021

Spotted Dog - best intentions

Three and a half months after saying that I’d visit the Spotted Dog, near Penshurst, I finally called in for a swift half. I was on my way home from work, and the half should have been a pint, but you know the scene – a couple of colleagues wanted my opinion on an issue that was causing them a spot of trouble.

Despite my protestations that I had to rush off (I didn’t let on that I was heading for the pub), they pressed me for an answer. As it happened, we decided the issue could wait until the following day, but in the meantime, I’d wasted nearly 10 minutes of valuable drinking time!

The reason for me rushing - I was due to collect young master Matthew from work at 5.50pm, so there was only a small window of opportunity for a visit to the Spotted Dog.  As things turned out, I made it to the pub just after 5.15pm, parked the car and then headed inside. 

The door was open, and I appeared to be the only customer. The Perspex screens were still in place in front of the bar, but I had an uninterrupted
view of the hand pumps.  The selection was Larkin’s Traditional, Harvey’s Sussex Best along with the brewer’s seasonal offer for summer – Olympia. The latter, which is the brewery’s attempt at a golden ale, is my least favourite Harvey’s beer, so I opted for the Sussex Best and as stated earlier, a half at that!

Martin would have been proud of me, I thought, given his predilection for popping in for a “swift half” and another GBG tick, but slightly embarrassed I explained to the barmaid that because I had to be in Tonbridge in 20 minutes, I only had time for a half. She probably couldn’t have cared less, but as a serious pub man of many years standing, I do normally like to start the session off with a pint!

I took my beer outside and annoyingly, it was in tip-top condition and worth at least a 4, and probably a 4.5 NBSS. Shortly afterwards a couple turned up, entered the pub, and inquired about food. With the door and windows open, I could hear the entire conversation which resulted in the pair being told that the kitchen wouldn’t be re-opening until 6pm, but would they like a drink while they waited?

The woman expressed her disappointment at having to wait 35 minutes, and told the bar staff, plus her companion, that she was hungry so they would have to go elsewhere.  I wondered whether they headed up to the Bottle House instead, if they knew where it was, whilst at the same time shaking my head at the impatience of those who expect, and often demand, instant gratification.

I drank up and left too, but not before returning my empty glass and commenting as to how good the Harvey’s had been. I drove back via to Tonbridge, via Penshurst and Bidborough, eyeing up the Leicester Arms and the Kentish Hare respectively, as possible pubs to stop off at for a pint on the way home.

I stated at the beginning that I’d waited three and a half months before calling in at this lovely old inn, and this relates to a post written by prolific blogger and dedicated GBG ticker, Retired Martin – usually referred to as RM.

Back in April, and not long after pubs re-opened (for outdoor table service only), Martin and his good lady wife, usually referred to as Mrs RM, enjoyed an overnight stay, in their camper-van at the car park of the Spotted Dog. Spurred on, and encouraged by their visit, I posted a comment on Martin’s blog that read, I had every intention of a fleeting lunchtime visit to the Spotted Dog, but the best laid plans and all that!”

I of course, had every intention of making a visit, but little did I think it would be 14 weeks before I set foot inside the pub. Well despite my short visit I am pleased that I made the effort, especially as the Spotted Dog is a pub, I’ve always had a soft spot for.

Smart’s Hill consists of a few rows of houses sited on high ground overlooking the River Medway, to the south of Penshurst. Somewhat unusually, for such a rural part of the county, Smart’s Hill has a second pub, known as the Bottle House, situated further up the hill from its neighbour, and in an even more isolated location.

Because of their situation, both pubs rely heavily on the food trade but of the two, I would say the Spotted Dog retains much more of a “pubby” atmosphere. I have written about the pub on several previous occasions, but to recap, the Spotted Dog, is a 15th century white weather boarded country inn that seems to cling to the hillside. It lies below the level of the road and is a long low building with a terraced garden area between the pub and the road.

The bar is right in front of the main entrance, in what is the narrowest, and most congested part of the pub, but the building opens out to the right, where there is a larger open area, heated by a welcoming log burning stove in winter. There is also a small “snug” area, just in front of the window. The main restaurant area is at the opposite end of the building.

The Spotted Dog’s popularity is evidenced by the large car park, just across the road, but despite the importance of the car-borne trade, many people do make the effort to walk here.  I too have done so on several past occasions and intend to again in the future.



Sunday 15 August 2021

Poaching an impromptu pint

Whether one is on that never ending quest for the perfect pub, or just out for a drive and looking for a suitable stop-off for a quick pint, it’s sometimes good to go off-piste. Doing so can be fun and it can also be revealing, and occasionally it can lead to somewhere verging on “pub perfection,” Shangri-La if you like.

I can’t pretend Wednesday evening’s drive brought us close to the latter, but it did turn out as a pleasant surprise, and an important lesson in never to pre-judge a pub – or anything else, for that matter.

I was running low on fuel – that nice low-carbon diesel that we all encouraged to buy into a decade and a half ago.  I had a voucher from Sainsbury’s that entitled me to double Nectar Points on fuel, but also thought it was high time that I checked my tyre pressures.

I normally do this before undertaking a long journey, but apart from a drive to Norfolk and back, for my father’s funeral, I haven’t driven anywhere that I could call a long journey. So thinking that February’s trip was the last time I’d checked my tyre pressures, but also mindful that even with a daily commute to work of 15 miles, I’d still clocked up a few, it was definitely time to check whether I’d been driving around on underinflated tyres, these past six months.

Matthew decided to come with me, so after checking each tyre and inflating where necessary – only one was significantly under, and purchasing 40 quid’s worth of diesel, it was time to think of a place we could stop off at, for a well-earned pint.

As an aside, the fact that our local Sainsbury’s filling station now charge motorists for air (30p for 3 minutes, pay contactless, by card), does show how long it’s been since I last checked the boots on my vehicle. Petrol stations always made a big play of advertising “Free Air,” but alas no longer, it appears.

That’s enough waffle, and on leaving the filling station, we headed north along Tonbridge High Street in search of a suitable hostelry. There were two places I had in mind; the Rose Revived, on the edge of Hadlow, or the Carpenter’s Arms at Three Elm Lane, between Tonbridge and Golden Green.

I opted for the latter, as it was fractionally nearer, but as we approached the pub, we couldn’t help noticing the cars parked along the lane. The reason for this became self-evident, when we arrived at the Carpenter’s, and found the car park literally bursting at the scenes, which was exactly what we’d experienced just over a month previously.

With insufficient room to do a u-turn, we carried on towards Golden Green and it was then that the idea hit me, why not try the Poacher & Partridge, in nearby Tudeley? This large and imposing pub started life as the Red Cow – and then went through several name changes. It was known as the Hartlake, for a while, because it is situated in Hartlake Road. I thought that it late became the Poacher, but an entry in The Real Ale Drinker’s Guide to Kent Pubs, published 1993, lists the pub as the Pig in Hiding.

A daft name that fortunately didn’t hang around too long, and the pub then became the Poacher. I remember the pub hosting the firm’s Christmas dinner, back in the late 90’s, when I worked for a family-owned chemical manufacturer, based in Tonbridge. It had been enlarged by this time and had also gained quite a reputation for its beer range. This was one reason why I was chosen for the Christmas bash, as the work’s engineer and I played a role in its selection.

2006 saw further enlargement, another makeover, and possibly the addition of  partridge to the pub’s name, although that might have happened in 2014. Thinking back, I’m sure I hadn’t set foot in the pub since that time, so Wednesday’s visit put that straight, but it's worth noting that the Poacher & Partridge is one of 11 upmarket outlets, owned by Elite Pubs.

As we pulled into the car park, I was beginning to think we would again be unlucky, but fortunately there were a few spaces in the overspill area to the far left. We walked up towards the front of the pub and a I asked Matthew if he fancied sitting inside or outside or would the pub?

We decided to see what it was like inside, and rather surprisingly we found that the central bar area was quite empty. There was a choice of three cask ales – Doom Bar (no thanks), Cellar Head Session Pale, and Harvey’s Sussex Best. I went for the latter, whilst Matthew opted for a pint of Barcelona's finest.

We decided to sit outside, despite the fact the temperature was dropping, but there was a reason for our choice which influenced this decision. I’d noticed a WhatsApp message from my sister in America, that had just flashed up on my phone. It related to our late father’s estate, and as we are both executors, I needed to respond.

The estate business has been dragging on for some time, and I could have done without what seemed like a further complication, and the five-hour time difference didn’t help either, but fortunately a text reply saved the day and Matthew and were able to resume our father-son chat.

It might seem premature to some, but we’re planning a rip to Munich for next spring - probably May time, and it seemed appropriate to list out a few of our favourite beer gardens even though the visit is over six months away. Sitting in an English pub garden whilst contemplating some of Munich’s finest outdoor drinking establishments, seemed even more appropriate.

More importantly it was something to look forward to, and as long as things continue moving in the right direction. It certainly provided a brief, and most welcome interlude from the daily routine of work and gardening that seems to have characterised the summer of 2021.

The pub itself, was obviously doing well, as was the Carpenter’s we’d been unable to access earlier, so fingers crossed our optimism isn’t unfounded!